Lose Your Elite Status, Gain Your Self-Respect — and Launch Your Own Frequent Travel Loyalty Program?

ith the major news announced this week by Marriott International, Incorporated acquiring Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Incorporated — as well as the frequent flier loyalty programs of Aer Lingus and American Airlines being converted from miles earned from distance flown to miles earned based on dollars spent — I was reminded of this article which was originally posted at The Gate on Friday, April 11, 2014 when it resided on FlyerTalk.

I believe that article — which resonated with many readers and prompted thoughtful responses — is as relevant today as it was then, as much of the aforementioned news has been perceived by many frequent fliers as negative. It is presented in its entirety below.

Lose Your Elite Status, Gain Your Self-Respect — and Launch Your Own Frequent Travel Loyalty Program?

A FlyerTalk member sent a private message to me alerting me of the following essay — “one of the most thought-provoking threads I’ve read” in the TravelBuzz forum, he wrote — posted by FlyerTalk member barbarony62, which has been posted below in its entirety:

“For the longest time I have been an avid collector of Status Points. The more I had the better I felt. Cut the queues, get a free drink, an upgraded room, a better seat; It was all about status, and being recognized for who I am. I am is an international traveler, terribly predictable and awfully repetitive. George Clooney, in his movie ‘Up In The Air’ was my mascot. I had lots of Status, and zero self respect.

“Do not misunderstand me. It was fun. It is indeed better to sleep in a larger room in a hotel, and get that free drink at check-in. It is more comfortable to use the Gold VIP queue at airport check-in. It is nicer to drive a larger, stronger car. It is definitely easier to fly business class than economy. And while it was all ‘free’, it came at a cost. I had become a beggar, and I had been wasting time on ‘the points race’

“Over the last few years, I have seen frequent flyer clubs increase the number of miles needed to earn benefits. The memberships have become so hard to maintain that I started loosing one status after another. The business atmosphere also changed. Business travel was looking at cheaper alternatives for hotels, and a smaller entertainment budget. Both meant less points on my hotel memberships, and credit card status points.

“As a knee jerk reaction to these new membership criteria, I quickly adopted a new philosophy, and a bad one if I say so myself. I started focusing on a single airline, so at least I could keep a Gold status with one company. I made it a point to sleep in the same hotel chain, so I could collect the points, and I always rented cars from the same company. This turned out to be the worst decision I could make.

“I ended up paying more for flights, as I had lost the competitive nature of the business. I also found myself making connections in airports that did not really make sense to my travel plans, and lost countless hours detouring just to get those extra points. With points value going down, what points I did end up collecting were pretty much useless. And do not for a minute forget that I had to beg at airports. ‘Can I get a free upgrade?’; ‘Can I get a better seat?’ I must have asked this a thousand times, just because as a Status flyer I hoped I deserved it. I think begging took a bigger toll on my well-being than anything else.

“I did not fare much better with hotels. Staying with a single chain meant I did not always choose the best hotel or the best price, or even the most convenient location. Once more I was loosing time and money. And yes…. the begging for an upgrade never stopped. Sure, when I asked at check-in I did not ‘beg’, I more or less demanded my rights, but inside, I knew I was begging.

“I could go on an on about membership clubs and how they got me to plan my trips incorrectly, and had me begging for a freebie, but you get the point.

“And then, about a year ago, I established my own frequent flyer program. It fits my needs to perfection, and since I am the owner of the program, I do not have to beg; I get all I want when I want it. So now I plan my flights to meet my schedules, and I do not take extra connections if not needed. I also find cheaper flights. True, I do not get as many upgrades as before, but I was not getting them anyways. And since I know I do not deserve them, I stopped asking for them. I feel much better not having to beg. With the time and money I save, I allow myself to go to a good restaurant before or after I land; I find its much better than the free peanuts and stale sandwiches in the lounges.

“I also choose hotels that are better suited for my trip. I take a room that fits my needs, and ignore the possibility for upgrade. If I really needed a larger room, I would have booked it. Since I save money on hotels and taxis now (location, location), I can afford a nicer, upgraded room once in a while, without begging. I simply book it. Its much nicer to check into a suite without having to ‘ask’ for it.

“So there. I have established my own frequent flyer program. From day one I have given myself the highest status of ‘Golden President and Ambassador’. Under this program I am allowed to book flights on any airline, sleep in any hotel, take any room I want, and with the time I save, I write blogs. With the money I save, by the way, I buy my ‘free’ tickets to anywhere I want, and I have no blackout periods. Begging is not allowed under the terms of this membership.

“Self Respect.”

I can relate.

There was a time where I was known on FlyerTalk for flying as a passenger on some of the most convoluted routes in order to achieve elite level status and earn as many frequent travel loyalty program miles and points as possible. There was the time I traveled from Atlanta to attend a meeting in Phoenix via Honolulu three times; Washington, D.C. twice; and Los Angeles once. There was also the time where I traveled from Atlanta to San Diego through London each way because it was less expensive than traveling directly between Atlanta and San Diego. I have traveled between Atlanta and Santa Ana through Watertown twice, Pittsburgh four times, and San Francisco once for fewer than $75.00 total while earning approximately 16,000 frequent flier loyalty program miles and earning elite level status during that itinerary, which resulted in a much-appreciated upgrade for me on an overnight transcontinental flight. I would even choose a destination which was several hours away, rent a car and drive the rest of the way, saving money and yet benefiting from a frequent flier loyalty program.

Some people would criticize me, telling me how I was foolishly squandering time and opportunity costs while putting myself through unnecessary stress and trouble as my exposure to the unknown increased significantly: unexpected weather, mechanical issues, overbooked flights, and irregular operations; while others would marvel at my tenacity — sometimes with a tinge of jealousy…

…and then there are those FlyerTalk members who simply called me crazy.

I enjoyed that the most. If a fellow FlyerTalk member — someone who is avid about travel, the earning of elite level status, and the collection of frequent travel miles and points — calls me crazy, well…I must be doing something right.

Let’s just say that I would not have considered those aforementioned convoluted itineraries if I did not simply enjoy traveling on an airplane in general. I have even revealed that I have a special collection of songs to which I enjoy listening specifically for when I travel — some of which were published by The Wall Street Journal in this article by Scott McCartney pertaining to the superstitions of travelers.

The first 25 years of my life were spent in a neighborhood in New York near a major international airport — and if you know my FlyerTalk name, you know exactly where I grew up — and I used to watch the airplanes fly over my home, one after another. There were airlines of which I never heard before in livery schemes I never saw before carrying people to or from some far-off corner of the world — and then there were also airplanes operated by the likes of Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines, Air France, Lufthansa, and a collection of airlines which no longer exist. I would watch them fly over — whether they had just departed or were preparing to land — and dream of all of the places to which I could travel one day.

In fact, the smell of jet fuel still excites me whenever I am at an airport. There is something about the environment of an airport which holds the promise of being a gateway to the discovery of a part of the world to which I have never been before in my life.

This was, of course, before the advent of frequent travel loyalty programs which have attracted more people to travel over the years. Some people can get so caught up in what has been known as the “game” that I asked if you have forgotten the simple wonders of travel.

In my opinion, if you must have a premium experience of indulgence and luxury whenever you travel — whether or not aided by elite level status and the earning and redemption of frequent travel loyalty program miles and points — I might suggest that perhaps you are missing the whole point of what the travel experience is all about.

Have frequent travel loyalty programs tainted the travel experience? Can the bright spot of the spate of perceived devaluations by loyalty programs of airlines and lodging companies be that people will travel again for the sake of traveling and not be caught up in the distractions of earning elite level status and miles and points? When I asked if you have become irrelevant to travel companies, can that possibility actually be a blessing in disguise?

I expressed my point of view on the best and worst use of frequent flier loyalty program miles greater than two years ago; and although my point of view can shift from time to time — and does — there has to be a value proposition involved to be worth it in the first place. One thing is for certain with me: I do not typically like to pay for an upgraded experience with money unless I am getting what I believe is a return on my investment — meaning that the experience had better be memorable and worth the extra cost. In most scenarios, I could use the several hundred — or thousand, if on an international flight — dollars spent on that wider seat, more drinks and a meal or two towards a finer dining experience on the ground…

…or perhaps towards something else which I need or could use altogether.

For me, the challenge of achieving elite level status and earning as many frequent travel loyalty program miles and points is not completely over altogether — even though I asked you last year if it was time to give up on earning miles, points and elite level status. Rather, I must agree with most of what barbarony62 posted — and, apparently, other FlyerTalk members seem to agree as well.

Among them is FlyerTalk member SpartanTraveler, who posted the following thoughtful response:

“I really like your outlook and have done a similar thing myself.

“Up until a few years ago I spent several years traveling internationally for work about two weeks per month. Mostly long haul flights to Asia and then hopping between different cities in the region. My company always paid for first class and top hotels. I became obsessed with my status on various airline and hotel programs.

“After being promoted to a new role with very little travel I started to finally cash-in on all those frequent flyer miles for my own personal travel, same with hotel points. It was nice but given the increased point requirements they also tended to go pretty fast, especially when buying multiple international first class tickets for me and my girlfriend, and some times several family members.

“Now I still travel quite a bit but mostly for leisure (e.g. a monthly cross-country flight at least). But I just look for the cheapest and most convenient ticket. I have access to airline lounges sometimes with my AMEX or if I get an upgrade but for the most part I have found them to suck. After spending so much time in airline lounges in Asia, visiting even the better ones in the US feels like hanging out in a hospital waiting room. I have come to find much more enjoyment in just packing light and roaming around, maybe having a meal and drinks at an airport restaurant or pub if time permits.

“I have also found a large reduction in value given to status. I do everything online so the dedicated lines at the airport don’t matter. I can ease through security with TSA PreCheck, and for example my usual airline nowadays (USAir) will sell you PriorityAccess for only $10 per flight. I board early because of my status but even without the status I could simply play $10 to get the same early boarding and priority security line.

“Upgrades have become so few and far between on the routes I fly that I do not even consider that a real benefit any more. Frankly, the benefits status gives us now are basically things everyone should get anyway. It has come down to having status to be treated somewhat normally or don’t have status and be treated like cattle.”

However, I do not believe I ever lost my self-respect during the heart of my frenzy of earning elite level status and frequent travel loyalty program miles and points, as I maintained my perspective and expectations. I had fun. I enjoyed the ride — even when it was challenging. The adventures which awaited me were not always welcomed — but they were part of the experience nonetheless…

…and I will continue to enjoy traveling with an adjusted balance of participating in frequent travel loyalty programs, earning elite level status, saving money wherever I can but not to the point where it ruins the travel experience for me, and being even more sensible about my priorities and time than before.

In other words: perhaps it is time that frequent fliers take back some — if not all — of the control of our travel experience away from the compulsion of the frequent travel loyalty program “game” and better customize it to our preferences by creating our own frequent travel loyalty program, as suggested by barbarony62.

Summary

Every day that passes seems to portend that the frequent travel loyalty program as we once knew it is headed closer and closer to extinction; and it is possible that what may be referred to as “the good old days” may never happen again — at least, as long as the economy is considered good.

With all of the changes, perceived devaluations and other major news which have been announced — especially this week — many frequent fliers are reconsidering their futures pertaining to the concept of frequent travel loyalty programs. Tough choices need to be decided as to what actually works best — and that includes being a “free agent.”

As with the original article, I am interested in your thoughts. Please post them in the Comments section below. Thank you in advance.

Illustration ©2012 by Brian Cohen.

5 thoughts on “Lose Your Elite Status, Gain Your Self-Respect — and Launch Your Own Frequent Travel Loyalty Program?”

  1. Mark Roddis says:

    What a great post and one that follows on nicely from your post the other day.

    I can share a lot of the sentiments set out here and as I said the other day, am doing the same right now. and am enjoying the ride.

    Having said that, as we head towards the end of the year, I am looking at all the loyalty schemes I am a member of and seeing the following about to happen.

    IHG – I have been a platinum member since 2001. In January I will renew at Silver

    Singapore Airlines – Next year will see me loose status all together and see about 30k miles expire!!!

    Carlson and Accor will both see me renew at just Silver

    Hilton will see me with no status at all

    Because I have been doing this for so long, it feels wrong (but we all know it isn’t) and as I said the other day, I have stayed in some great hotels this year that were not in chains and did not give points.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I do not know if wrong is the correct word to describe that weird feeling of not being what used to be perceived as loyal, Mark Roddis; but there is a sense of freedom knowing that you are not tied to a frequent travel loyalty program where you scramble to attain elite level status for another year and cash in on miles and points opportunities…

      …but I do have to wonder: how much has this so-called loyalty cost us? Forget about opportunity cost for a moment. Was it really worth to spend an extra $50.00 per night in that hotel property which is a brand that participates in the frequent guest loyalty program of your choice; or that extra $150.00 for a flight on one airline versus another?

      In other words: amongst the other potential benefits associated with this new freedom, will we also save money?

  2. RR says:

    Great post.

    I did the same thing last year when AA had their overnight program devaluation. I declared free agency, burned 1.5M miles that I had accumulated (I’m a business owner and had virtually no airfare expenses for me or my employees in late 2014 and early 2015). This weekend, I’m burning the last 300K with my family on an overseas firs class trip. I took great satisfaction in the devaluation, as I feel like I’ve at least extracted the last element of value from this program before they really made it worthless to me. I was on a mission 🙂

    By changing my patterns, I’ve not connected in DFW at all in 2015, which used to be a weekly occurrence. All my flights have been nonstop, saving remarkable time and frustration. I’ve learned to really appreciate the new food venues in the terminals, now that I’ve dropped my admirals club membership.

    I’ve also started flying European carriers to Europe, and wow, what a difference in product. LH business and premium economy (with inflight wifi, no less) is SIGNIFICANTLY better than AA angled lie flat. What was I thinking!

    It’s all good. AA, thanks for reinforcing my decision. I feel even better for getting off the bandwagon.
    RR

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I am glad to read that you benefited from freeing yourself from the psychological shackles of loyalty to a frequent flier loyalty program, RR.

      Thank you for relating your experience.

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